Obesity didn't just happen overnight. Rather it is a culmination of sociological and technological changes that have completely altered the fabric of society over the past fifty years. For thousands of years the primary mode of transportation was the horse or horse drawn cart/wagon/carriage. Boats were powered by sails. In the mid 1800's the steam engine created the railroads and steam powered ships. The early 1900's brought on the automobile and then the airplane. Those vehicles remained largely unchanged until the 1950's when jets and rockets changed the basic configuration of transportation. Cell phones came alone in the 1980's. In 2007 the iPhone was unveiled. In the past eight years the smart phones have morphed dramatically, virtually every year the technology has been improving geometrically. Along the way society changed from being agricultural, to urban and industrial. Now jobs are being replaced by robots and outsourced. More changes have occurred over the past fifty years than in the entire previous 3,000 years. All of these things have created stresses on the fabric of society that have contributed to the current dynamic.
This specific example will yield clarity. Everyone is familiar with Hostess, the company that baked such favorites as Hostess cakes, Wonder bread that builds strong bodies in so many ways, Ho-Hos, Ding Dongs, Zingers, Sno balls, and the iconic Twinkies - not to mention the assorted soft and gushy cupcakes. This story tells the tale of America's journey into obesity. Hostess started as a simple bakery called Ward Bakery in lower Manhattan in 1849. It's a classic American business story in that Ward, the original company, met with success, expanded, bought up other competitors, was itself bought, and the result became a large national company. At its height it had 58 factories, 1,250 outlet stores, 10,500 delivery routes, $3.2 billion in sales, and 32,000 employees. Wonder bread had a very short shelf life, just a few days; therefore Hostess relied upon delivery vans to move the baked goods to stores. That meant its factories had to be located strategically and only areas close to a plant could be serviced efficiently. This created a matrix wherein the products were baked, placed in vans, and delivered to the stores; all within a close radius of each plant. The 1960's and 70's were the era of the unions. The company became unionized. While there are many good reasons for a union, this is a case study for too much of a good thing. There were different unions, with different rules. The union rules were archaic, requiring that only some routes could be served by certain drivers, as a result the routes were often redundant. By 2004 Hostess was $700 million in debt and filed a chapter 11 bankruptcy. The bankruptcy went on for five years. Rather than rethink the business plan, management and the unions arm wrestled the status quo. The object in a bankruptcy is to make a business that was not functioning properly efficient, and that almost always means trimming debt. It's why companies and individuals file bankruptcy; to eliminate debt.
In 2004 the economy was roaring. By 2008 it was an altogether different situation. At this point Wall Street financiers came into the equation. A private equity group gained control of the company. That, in turn led to a couple of hedge funds agreeing to loan the company over $300,000,000. It emerged from the bankruptcy in 2009 with more debt than it had when it went into the bankruptcy. Usually the opposite is the result of a bankruptcy, less debt. The pension costs and health benefits of the retirees were crushing expenses. For example, the cost of healthcare for retired workers exceeded that of the employees still working. That creates an impossible situation wherein the costs become insurmountable. In 2012 Hostess again filed bankruptcy. The union called a national strike, protesting proposed cuts to benefits and the company ceased to be.
Considering the nutritional value of the products is also illustrative. The Twinkie was developed in the Depression when one of the bakers needed to find a use for the pans used to make strawberry shortcake when strawberries were out of season. The original Twinkie had banana filling. A shortage of bananas in WWII led to replacing bananas with vanilla. In the 1930's food was organic. The word organic is really just a fancy word for how food used to be grown before pesticides and genetic engineering. The original Hostess products were made with good ingredients. People in their 80's and 90's were familiar with Twinkies and had good memories of them. Accordingly they gave them to their children; the baby boomers. Television shows like The Howdy Doody Show were excellent places to reach to the future consumers. Thus the Hostess products went from generation to generation. Along the way in the 1960's and 70's, the changes in how food was produced began to permeate the society. It was the age of chemistry. Pesticides were prevalent, chemicals were used to 'preserve' food in order to prolong its shelf life. The advent of things on a label one cannot recognize squeezed out the nutritional value of the food products. It happened across the food spectrum.
With Hostess effectively D.O.A., the creditors looked for a way to get their money back. The bankruptcy court has a sale process called a 363 sale (named after a section of the code) which is the sale of assets. The hedge funds wanted their loans repaid and so to accommodate this demand the bankruptcy court held a bake sale and sold off the desert division - which included Twinkies, cupcakes, ding dongs, five plants, and the rights to these cupcakes and famous brands. The business was not operating at the time of the sale. The buyers paid $410 million for the “cake business", which was not a functioning enterprise. The buyer, an experienced food industry turnaround artist, set about modernizing the few plants. They added auto-baker machines, which can bake thousands of items at a time whereas the old way required lots of employees. Robots were designed to handle injecting the yummy vanilla flavor into the Twinkies. This allowed the investor to make much more with far fewer people. For instance, the old cake business required 9,000 people and 14 factories; the new configuration utilizes just 1,000 people and only 3 plants. The old Hostess used the delivery routes to get the cupcakes to market. The expense of delivery, trucks, vans, gas, insurance, and the people ate up 36% of every sales dollar. Modern businesses use warehouses that distributes product to where it is needed. The item is produced, shipped to a warehouse, and from the warehouse ships to the sales outlet.
The inherent problem for the new owner was that the cakes had a relatively short shelf life. A Twinkie would only last 25 days before going bad. As a solution, the new owner tuned to the wonderful world of chemistry to see if they couldn't bump that shelf life up a bit. Corbion, a Dutch company, was brought in to help figure out a solution. Its website describes it as "a global market leader in lactic acid, lactic acid derivatives, lactides, and functional blends containing enzymes, emulsifiers, minerals, and vitamins". Corbion worked with the recipe to develop the right mix of chemicals that would create the proper acidic balance to prevent product deterioration and promote shelf life. The result is a Twinkie that will last 65 days.
The country went into depression when Hostess stopped making the Twinkie. When the new owners began shipping again there was euphoria. The Ellen Show and Jimmie Fallon featured them, as well as a host of other media outlets. Sales have mushroomed. The investor will reap hundreds of millions of dollars over the next years.
Obesity is caused by the sociological changes that promoted the central element of our food production to be the profit motive. That striving for profits brought on the chemical additives that created products with little or no nutritional value but high addictive qualities. The more an individual craved the food because those chemicals created that insatiable desire, the more they have to eat thus creating an ever-increasing cycle. The more acceptable being overweight became, the more it stimulated the process until it is difficult to distinguish the individual's motivation from the societal imperative. Generally diets don't work because the additives create an addiction and the emotional aspect of the process is so difficult to understand. Without comprehending the cause it is nearly impossible to effectuate the cure.
A general rule of thumb is when reading a label on a food product if there are lots of words you do not understand, it most probably isn't good for you. Things that are not good for you will probably contribute to gaining weight and becoming obese.